Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The year of warm socks

I am not a fan of the cold weather. I attribute this in part to growing up in a desert climate during my formative years. I wonder some days if I suffer from a variation on Seasonal Affective Disorder that has yet to be documented, which scientists will some day discover is linked to temperatures below 60 degrees. Some winter mornings it takes every ounce of resolve I can muster to tear myself from the warmth of my flannel sheets to face the morning's bracing chill. (And if there's partner snuggling involved, forget about it: my feet might not hit the cold floor til noon.) Seriously, I have a hard time believing that I biked and camped all through the winter along the blustery Pacific coastline and southwestern high desert two years ago. I am not so tough as I once was.

Apparently those in my life who know me know this, too. In preparation for my Tour de Friends up north to Connecticut, Vermont, and Canada this winter, my close friends and family have been trying to help me whimper less.... My birthday and Christmas gifts consisted mainly of things to keep me nice and toasty: a hooded sweatshirt and knee-high socks from mom, a new pair of winter bike gloves from my brother (hopefully they will remain in my possession longer than the last pair), a plane ticket from dad to visit my best friend Meghan in Houston, a knit hat and convertible mitten-gloves from my cousin Sonia, two pairs of merino wool socks from my best friend Felicity. I am a happy, warm little Ibti these days, thanks to them.

What's that funny look for, eh? Have you ever worn padded hiking socks that are contoured to your feet, hosiery meticulously designed to hug the arch and ankle on the left or right foot specifically? Genius! I know I am tragically unhip, but how has it taken me so long to discover these little bits of woolen heaven?? The icy, tiled floor of my kitchen will be no match for these suckers when I'm back home in DC.

Comfy toes and cushioned heels. Warm hands. Snuggling. Yep, I think my 34th year is going to be a good one....

Saturday, December 17, 2011

For the record

Have I mentioned how I dread public speaking?

No, really. I'm not talking about when I'm teaching boisterous middle schoolers how to make pickles or instructing a roomful of ladies at a community center on how to can applesauce or doing a kale salad demonstration at the farmers' market -- shoot, I could do that all day long. (Some days I do.) I mean the kind of public speaking where you are standing at the front of the room with everybody looking at you, or, more frighteningly, behind a microphone, and you're expected not to faint but rather to present something thought-provoking in front of a roomful of people, most of whom know a heck of a lot more than you do about just about anything. Still, when I learned that City Councilman Tommy Wells was chairing an open forum on community gardens and urban agriculture, seeking advice on what was working, what changes are needed, and recommendations to move forward with integrating growing spaces more deliberately into the city's overall Plan, I had to master my natural chicken-heartedness and step up to the plate. Or in this case, the televised mic. (Eep.)

I spent most of Wednesday night agonizing and continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning preparing my 3-minute testimony for the public oversight roundtable. I'd considered submitting something in writing, thus circumventing the whole need for public speaking, but I wanted to be absolutely sure some of the things I've been talking with my local farmers and food advocates over the past year and a half made it onto the public record. An email or piece of paper can get lost, I reasoned with myself, but if I say it out loud it at this official meeting, well, it has to be noted in the official transcript. (Thank the lord I didn't know the session was going to be broadcast on live television or I never would have made it through the door to the conference room. "It has to get onto the public record" would've been right out the window.)

With the fate of urban agriculture in the District hanging in the balance, I joined more than 30 other DC residents -- gardeners, educators, park rangers, ANC commissioners, for-profit and non-profit farmers and small business folks -- and made my statement before Councilman Wells and his staff, as well as officials from Parks & Recreation, the Planning Office, Tax & Revenue, and UDC (our city's equivalent of a land grant university). I pleaded for a better system of cataloging and leasing land for those who want to grow food, and a means to sell the fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs they grow. Did you know that food grown on park land in the city cannot be sold? For heaven's sake, I argued (and, no, I didn't actually say "for heaven's sake," but I suspect it was implied in my tone), there are parts of the city where vacant land is way more common than healthy food options. We need some of that land to grow food and get it into the communities in which I work. We can build urban oases in these food deserts, we just need access to the land. (I wish I'd thought of the metaphor before this blogpost, alas.) Zoning and code in DC was not written with urban agriculture in mind, clearly, and we need to change it.

[BTW, speaking of city code, what are these silly stipulations I've heard about honey bees in the District needing to be contained in the hive? I actually first heard about that during the Sustainable DC food working group meeting the night before. (Seriously, 3 meetings on DC food policy held by 3 unaffiliated groups within 24 hours is a bit much. I will confess I missed the middle one, the Thursday morning HAFA planning meeting, still in bed and totally drained by the Sustainable DC meeting and then speech writing and hand wringing until all hours.) The whole point of having honey bees is to let them roam and pollinate. And make delicious honey, of course -- some jars of which have anonymously made their way onto the Councilman's desk down at City Hall. Bees can't do any of that when they're kept in the hive. Who is writing these policies?? Probably someone who was stung as a child and had a bad reaction. Get that guy an EpiPen, we need those bees out there working! And don't even get me started on the ridiculous anti-composting code.]

Collectively, we addressed existing successes, current issues with the way things are set up and suggestions for fixing them, and the need for the Planning Department to figure urban agriculture and community garden growing space into their future development of our city. It was pretty awesome listening to all of the knowledgeable, passionate urban food and garden experts. And a good thing, too, since I was there listening for five solid hours before I had my chance to speak on a panel, and then another half hour as things wrapped up. I didn't faint or anything. I will admit to having a bit of a deathgrip on the paper I read from and not looking up nearly as frequently as I previously encouraged students of mine to do while delivering a speech. But I was proud of myself for following through, and the Councilman commented that I'd given him quite a list of items to follow up on. (Good, that's his homework. Due...?)

I'm not sure what's going to come of all this, or the Mayor's Sustainable DC initiative, but at the end of the day, I'm glad to have said my piece on the public record. Someone, some day, might be accountable. Hopefully moreso than they were following the release of the District of Columbia's Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986... with requirements for regular public listing and updating of a cataloging of land available for public leasing to grow food. Hmmm. That assignment's a bit overdue, no?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give me five (percent)

So I've been hanging around outside my local Whole Foods a lot over the past week. Admittedly, I did sneak in for a bit after a shift of handing out fliers on Friday night to pick up a few goodies from the miscellaneous cheese bin tucked in the corner of the store behind the wine section, but mostly I have been freezing my toes off with my colleague Robin to promote "5% Day." It's kind of a big deal.

You see, two area Whole Foods stores are giving 5% of all sales on December 14th to support a bonus dollars program for low-income folks at 4 small farmers' markets here in the District (including two that I often work at, and which would benefit HUGELY from a partial matching dollars program). That's right, 5% of sales on anything from olive oil to nuts to wine to toothpaste -- all day and all night, 5% of whatever is purchased at the P Street or Georgetown Whole Foods stores today, Wednesday, goes directly to supporting food stamps. So if you're in the city and you need to pick up some groceries, come in and stock up on the things you need anyway and you will help make fresh, local fruits and vegetables more accessible to all.

Wow, that just rolled off the fingertips. I've said some version of it quite a few times these past few days, often speaking to the person's back as they brush past midway through the first sentence as if I were an annoying chihuahua yipping at them. "Excuse me, sir, do you know that this coming Wednesday is 5% Day? Whole Foods is donating 5% of...." The worst have been the ones with headphones who just put their heads down and shake their heads (something about the total lack of interest in engagement with the world/humanity really irks me about them), but there are plenty of other ridiculous antics I've witnessed. I feel like some kind of cultural anthropologist, studying the habits of middle-to-high-income urban shoppers and taking detailed notes on my mental clipboard: some pretend that they're talking on their cell phones (while others actually are), others give me a wide berth and hope that I won't have a chance to chase them down, and still others wave me away before I even open my mouth, as if I am some servant that has displeased them.

I am not a salesperson by nature. (My students laugh when I tell them I'm an introvert, but it's true!) However, this particular program is such a no-brainer: minimal effort is required of people and the result is such a tangible, direct public good. I swallowed my natural disinclination toward walking up to total strangers on the sidewalk and attempted to engage them. It's rough on the ego, I tell you, getting turned away time and again, but overall there were quite a number of friendly people who stopped to hear more about the program and ask questions. This was especially true of the more laid back Sunday shoppers, particularly couples and older, non-white, single shoppers. "Wait, so I don't have to do anything except shop for the things I need anyway? Sure, I'll come back Wednesday." I wanted to hug them. If I see them on Wednesday, I just might. (The post-work, hungry, busy-busy-busy professionals were definitely the least friendly; receptivity to me or my message did not seem to depend on gender.)

I'm a City Girl. I know it gets annoying with people asking you for stuff on the street all the time. Give me this, buy this, sign this, but sometimes a cause is worthwhile. I'm the person who more often than not will at least stop to listen to a canvasser's spiel. (Let me be clear: I'm all for advocacy and signing petitions, but I don't think stopping people on the street to ask for money is very effective... or appropriate, frankly. I have been known to purchase a copy of Street Sense from time to time, but that's different.) Standing outside a store someone is already going into or out of to promote a special program at that very store which benefits the neighborhood, I'm fine with that, but some apparently couldn't be bothered. "People," I would occasionally grumble, "I'm not selling anything or asking you to sign anything. I'm just here to help spread the word about 5% Day on Wednesday, when this Whole Foods is giving 5% of all sales for the day to help us increase food stamp programs at local farmers' markets." I tell you, if not for my belief in the effectiveness of the SNAP (food stamp) program at farmers' markets, I would've probably given up on handing out informational fliers about an hour into my first afternoon approaching strangers to encourage them to return to the store to load up on staples for the winter.

One guy paused to begin to lecture me about how food stamps are not the solution, how he didn't see why his tax dollars should go to feed people who didn't care to work. "Excuse me? People who don't care to work?" Boy did he stop to belittle the wrong outreach person: the twenty-something white kid got an earful about the atrocious levels of unemployment in the city, a tirade about how hard it is to make ends meet or find sufficient paid work even with a graduate degree and substantial experience these days, and a mini lecture on generations of disenfranchisement and poverty among low-income populations before meekly nodding and accepting a flier. (Not sure I'm going to see him at 5% Day, but I couldn't help myself.)

Food stamps are not the solution to the problem of hunger, they are something of a band-aid covering a small scratch on the much larger body of systemic power inequities. Sure, I get that. People shouldn't be on food stamps or other government programs indefinitely. We need to educate and empower people to be able to support themselves. But until there are sufficient jobs and authentic opportunities for folks to support themselves and their families, to nourish and nurture them in safe and secure homes, I for one don't mind my (currently rather meager) taxes helping folks less fortunate than me. And if I can help directly by buying a few things I was planning to purchase in coming months anyway, if I know that 5% of my purchases will go to a program in my city to bolster critical access to healthy food, I'll stock up on shampoo and almonds and a few other things after my outreach shift at the store later today. Maybe I'll see a few of you in the miscellaneous cheese section.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A local celebrity

I listen to my local NPR station every morning. This morning as I was warming up some breakfast I heard an excerpt from my very first radio interview on WAMU: a piece on the challenge faced by aspiring urban farmers to identify and secure a plot of vacant land to farm here in the District. Those who have tried to grow food on city, federal, or park land can tell you better than I can how circuitous and frustrating the process can be in this town. I happen to know a lot of them.

In fact, there are a number of challenges facing folks who want to raise crops, start a compost operation of any magnitude (thus building soil instead of loading up landfills), keep laying hens or honeybees, build aquaponics (fish farming) systems, or pursue other sustainable agricultural projects here in the city. Creating jobs, providing access to healthy food, improving the soil -- seems like a no-brainer that any politician or government office would love to support. (They could certainly use the positive press.) And yet.... In terms of the interview, I was speaking on behalf of the informally-named DC Urban Agriculture Coalition, a collection of local experts -- farmers, gardeners, educators, advocates, land developers, and policy folks -- who have come together to discuss ways we might inform city officials about the benefits of a robust urban agriculture sector, identify the barriers that currently prevent (or strongly discourage) food production and composting in our nation's capital, offer models from other cities, and propose a set of recommendations to encourage sustainable urban agriculture. (No, it's not one of my 6 paid part-time jobs; it's one of my 4 unpaid ones, and some days managing the group felt a bit like herding cats. Nice cats, mind you, but still tough to shepherd.) In the weeks since we drafted an advisory white paper and letter to the Mayor, many of us Coalition members have joined up with the recently announced Sustainable DC initiative. If there's even a chance of sincere commitment from city government to address some of the barriers to urban food production, I'll bike myself to the series of 8 meetings over the next few months.

I mean, seriously, what are our alternatives as supporters of healthy, local food? Some folks who have tried to grow here have given up. Some have started guerrilla gardening. Some have gotten jobs in the government to try and change things from within. Some have gone elsewhere to grow food, to places like... Baltimore??

Most in the sustainable food world know that Detroit is leaps and bounds ahead of DC in terms of urban food production. Some may have heard of similarly cool urban ag projects in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Okay, fine. But when, a few months ago, I learned how city officials in nearby Baltimore have been working with urban growers to revamp zoning regulations and streamline land assessment/leasing to encourage urban food production, I really got worked up. I mean, for crying out loud, the First Lady has an organic garden on the White House lawn... how are there not urban growing spaces on every street corner here in DC? I never thought we'd be looking up to Baltimore as a model for urban food production, but these are strange times. (Even so, I would not advise biking around there when you go to visit the urban farms.)

Anyway, at least three different friends sent me a message within a few minutes of the short broadcast this morning to say they were excited to hear me on WAMU. Yes, a five-second blurb on local radio. Well, I hope it helps spread the word on the urgent need for reforming the way vacant land is used in DC -- especially in areas of DC that are considered "food deserts," where fresh food is hard to find -- but I'm not exactly a local celebrity.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

So *you're* the one teaching my daughter to make that stinky food

As one of my heroes, Sandor Katz, once said, you can ferment just about anything. Well, a week ago, a roomful of adolescents and I made kim chi from the greens of daikon radishes. (We pickled the radish roots along with some beets and cucumbers during the following class, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Clearly, I am behind on the blogging about this fantastic project.) It was part of the sustainable food and garden club activities I've been running a couple of afternoons each week at a middle school in Suitland, MD, with my fearless co-instructor Jessica... and boy was it fun.

We started class with the students tasting some turnip green kim chi I'd made two weeks before. (See, this teacher is always thinking ahead: I wanted it to be good and spicy and stinky for them, heheh.) As they fished around the jar with chopsticks, we talked about Korean cuisine and food preservation methods. And, oh, the faces some of them made! It was hilarious. "Wow, that's really spicy!" and "Whoah, that really stinks!" echoed throughout the classroom. We passed around the various ingredients for students to see and smell and, if they wanted to, taste: fresh ginger, garlic, onion, red pepper flakes, sea salt. Then we hauled out the giant radishes that Jessica had brought from the farm, filled up some buckets with clean water for washing everything, and broke out the kitchen equipment.

The 7th and 8th graders really got into it, chatting and chopping and mincing and mashing away. If you've been following this blog for awhile, you might guess that it was a variation on the easy kim chi I've made a few times. (No, it's not exactly authentic kim chi. For one thing, it lacks the particular kind of peppers that are traditionally used. And it's vegan, so actually less fishy smelling than the real stuff.) If you're looking for the recipe we used, it's here.

I was tickled to find William showing a few of his peers the trick to removing garlic skins, to overhear Tiara and Tiffany discussing the complex smell of fresh ginger, to see sometimes rather rowdy teenagers mash, mash, mashing away one layer after another of greens and spices and asking each other if their jar needed more salt/pepper/garlic. I think it was one of the most popular classes to date. It was certainly one of the most intense on the nasal passages.

There was a bit of cleaning up to do afterwards -- note to self: end class 15 minutes early so the kids can help with the cleaning -- but it was definitely one of the more memorable classes for the students. And their parents, apparently. One mother who stopped in to pick up her daughter after the next class said that her teen had loaded up a hamburger with her homemade kim chi one night at dinner. (And here I thought the student wasn't paying attention when I'd casually mentioned doing something similar when Jessica and I had experimented with kim chi and hotdogs a few months ago. Who knew?) Another mother asked if I was the teacher her daughter had been talking about that sent her home with the stinky green jar. Yep, that's me. Sure, some of the food we're making can smell and taste a bit intense. But it's so good for you. And the kids are expanding their taste horizons. (And there is the added bonus of the kim chi's ability to mask the faint smell of garlic emanating from one's person. Or maybe that's just me.)

[Thanks to my dear friend Jeff for capturing some of this excitement on camera!]